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The Curse Of Creativity: Industrial Designer Curtis Bailey Can’t Rest

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The world is filled with things Curtis Bailey doesn’t like.

Golf bags that don’t stand conveniently at your side. The spaghetti of inaccessible wires that sticks from the backs of computers. The mess on the car floor because there’s no convenient place to put the family’s refuse.

“It’s almost like a curse,” he said of the life he lives as an industrial designer and president of Sundberg-Ferar, of Walled Lake, Mich. “I’m always thinking, ‘This could be so much better.”’

Industrial designers essentially are architects who aim to make a wide range of manufactured things more appealing and useful.

The first product Sundberg-Ferar made was a better mousetrap in the 1930s. It now claims the design credit for a diverse list of products that include the original IBM electric typewriter, most of the Whirlpool appliances in the last two decades, and rail cars for rapid-transit systems in San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

But for all this success, a group of new partners headed by Bailey, who took over the firm five years ago, became dissatisfied with industrial design itself. For one thing, most people hardly know what it is and, for another, it just doesn’t go far enough.

And so the firm has now become a product-design and development company. In the simplest terms, the company now not only designs and builds prototypes of new products, but its engineers test them and otherwise prepare them for manufacture and use. The company’s market researchers probe consumers’ interests to make sure the products get a good reception.

Sundberg-Ferar gets most of its business from corporations that pay $50,000 to $1 million to develop a variety of products, ranging from an ironing board to a passenger railroad car.

The customers usually arrive with a proposal for enhancing a current product because competitors are breathing down their necks.

That begins a give-and-take creative process in which Sundberg-Ferar will offer its own suggestions, many of them obtained from market-research focus groups.

This is not as simple as it sounds: Consumers rarely can tell you what they want, but much can be learned from observing their compensatory behavior with a product, Bailey says.

For example, the company recently interviewed people at a nursing home about how they liked the new walkers they had been trying out.

“We asked them for an hour: Is there anything you could do differently with this walker?” he said. “But, no, everyone loved the product.”

As the group left the room and returned to the walkers, company researchers quickly noted how the customers had been working to improve the product, essentially unbeknownst to themselves.

“One woman has a bicycle basket tied with shoe laces to the front of the walker to carry stuff,” Bailey said. “Another guy had taken duct tape and fashioned a cradle for his cordless phone, which he carried everywhere.”

As a result, Sundberg-Ferar’s designers were able to meet an apparently obvious need: a walker with a convenient nylon-web carrying pouch.

“For 18 additional cents, we added a place for their telephone, bottle of aspirin, their magazine, all those things they can’t carry,” Bailey said. “And now this product has a compelling competitive advantage over other walkers.”

The company, which has 28 employees, is one of Michigan’s largest half-dozen industrial-design firms and, the company believes, one of about 20 nationwide that offer complete product development. Since the company embarked on the new strategy about five years ago, revenues have almost doubled from $1.6 million to $3 million last year.

The company is the creation of two industrial designers, Carl Sundberg, and Montgomery (Monty) Ferar, who left General Motors Corp. in 1934.

Richard Heck, retired longtime president of the company, says the two were oddly matched but extremely creative together. “Carl was outgoing, very creative and a gambler. He would gamble anything to get accounts,” Heck said. “I think Monty’s hair stood on end a few times over this. He was more reserved, more intellectual, and he provided some balance.”

Sundberg retired from the company in 1975 and Ferar followed a year later. Both men died five days apart six years later. Ferar was 72, Sundberg 71.

While the company usually finds ways to enhance other people’s inventions, Bailey is a co-inventor with Michael Docherty, a former employee, of at least one device of his own. It’s a practice basketball backboard that marks the angles so players can improve their bank shots.

But he already has one reason to be dissatisfied.

“We started with the invention first, which is the way most inventors do it,” he said, noting that the proper way is first to find a market need. “I would not recommend that someone do this the way we did.”

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